Supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 8, 2023.
Supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Adriano Machado
Statement / Latin America & Caribbean 8 minutes

Brazil: The Mob Leaves Its Mark

The assault on Brazilian state institutions purposely evoked the 2021 incursion into the U.S. Capitol. As in the aftermath of that event, the job of law enforcement overlaps with the more delicate task of identifying the political and financial circles that made the riot possible.

On 8 January, a mob of far-right supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the main institutions of the Brazilian state, shining a harsh light on the country’s political divisions. For more than two months after Brazil’s 2022 election, which Bolsonaro lost to current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the militants had been camping just outside army headquarters in Brasília, calling for a military coup to reinstall their idol. They left the site that morning on an 8km trek that ended with them ransacking the federal Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace. Police later rounded up a reported 1,500 culprits. Their camp is now dismantled, but the potential for future mobilisation remains, with isolated protests causing roadblocks in São Paulo and three other states following the riots. Just as importantly, while Bolsonaro is in the United States, allies of his remain in positions of great power across the country, including in large, populous states, in Congress – where his Liberal Party has the most seats in both houses – and within the armed forces. The authorities should seek as a priority to prosecute individuals involved in the 8 January assault. But Lula’s government will also have to find a way to both cooperate with the formal political forces representing bolsonarismo and quell discontent among its many supporters in the military and the population at large.

Deliberately evoking what happened at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021, the premeditated attack on Brazil’s democratic system was shocking but not surprising. Throughout the 2022 campaign, Bolsonaro, a hard-right populist who soared to power in 2018 by promising to end corruption and restore conservative social values, had sought to heap discredit on the voting system and electoral authorities. Many interpreted his broadsides to mean that, should his opponent prevail, he might conspire to block a handover of power. Upon losing narrowly to Lula, Bolsonaro seemingly stayed away from any such scheming, and largely retreated from public view. But he did not acknowledge defeat and refused to attend Lula’s inauguration on 1 January. Meanwhile, his core supporters, galvanised by their leader’s rhetoric and social media apparatus, and pushed further rightward by their defence of his government’s gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, rallied to his side. They have called repeatedly for the poll result to be overturned and for the armed forces to seize power. Their protests manifested varying degrees of real and implied violence: road blockages, marches, a foiled bomb attack on the Brasília airport and what appeared to be mass Nazi salutes at a gathering in a prosperous farming region.  

The various manoeuvres culminating in the 8 January rampage seem to have required organisation.

The various manoeuvres culminating in the 8 January rampage seem to have required organisation. Police and judicial investigators will now centre their attention on the network of logistics, communication and finance that made it possible. But as in the aftermath of the events at the U.S. Capitol, law enforcement’s immediate imperatives overlap with the more delicate task of identifying the roles played by political and military figures sympathetic to Bolsonaro.

The former president offered only a mild rebuke of the riots, comparing it to previous protests by his political opponents, including 2013 demonstrations against poor public services and corruption as well as a general strike four years later. “Peaceful demonstrations, within the law, are part of democracy. However, vandalism and the invasion of public buildings like today’s acts, and like those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, are an exception to the rule”, he wrote on Twitter. But he denied playing a role in the unrest, insisting that he has always acted within the law. A number of U.S. lawmakers have nevertheless called for his extradition, which Brazilian authorities would need to formally request after filing criminal charges against the ex-president. Proof of Bolsonaro’s direct involvement with the riot may nevertheless be hard to obtain, and any move to capture him would likely generate high political tension. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department confirmed on 9 January that anyone who enters the country on a diplomatic visa but whose official duties expire during his or her stay – which is the case for Bolsonaro – is obliged to either leave the country or obtain a new visa within 30 days of arriving.

The response from Bolsonaro’s allies in positions of power has been mixed. Brasília’s governor, the pro-Bolsonaro Ibaneis Rocha, fired his security chief, Anderson Torres, on 8 January after the riots began. At the time, Torres was on vacation with his family in the U.S., where he remains; the acting security chief during the march on federal buildings reportedly told Rocha that the participants were “totally peaceful”. Rocha himself was then suspended by the Supreme Court for 90 days for his failure to contain the violence. Other members of the pro-Bolsonaro coalition, including the head of his Liberal Party, have distanced themselves from the violence, calling it “shameful” and saying it “does not represent the party”. The party and its national allies as well as powerful regional figures like São Paulo’s governor, Tarcísio de Freitas, will remain crucial to Lula’s capacity to police far-right agitation. At the same time, they are likely to be wary of alienating their most dedicated and militant followers. Freitas and Romeu Zema, the pro-Bolsonaro governor of Mina Gerais, on 9 January attended an emergency meeting convened by Lula to discuss the unrest, with the former declaring that “pacification requires gestures from everyone: the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and the states”.

Authorities will also have to investigate whether members of the security forces failed to rein in the riot or were complicit in keeping it going. In his meeting with state governors on Monday, Lula vented his frustration with the military’s top brass, declaring that “it seems the generals liked it when people demanded a coup”. Government sources have told the media that many of those in the camp in Brasília were either retired military officers or relatives of serving troops. Video clips on social media show military police buying refreshments for rioters, while soldiers in the presidential palace reportedly did nothing to prevent the damage the mob did to its interior.

Events in Brasília have reinforced general anxiety in Latin America about perils to democracy.

Events in Brasília have reinforced general anxiety in Latin America about perils to democracy. Throughout the region, much of which is now run by left-leaning governments close to Lula’s, leaders expressed dismay at the turmoil, with presidents including Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Argentina’s Alberto Fernández casting it as the handiwork of right-wingers bent on thwarting progressive rule. A less partisan perspective would point instead to a rising tide of political violence in recent years, including attempted assassinations of political figures on both right (such as Bolsonaro himself in 2018) and left, as well as flare-ups of legitimate protest that have on occasion ended in pitched battles with security personnel using live ammunition, for instance in Colombia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Chile and Peru. Governments portraying themselves as left-wing have also staged authoritarian clampdowns: Venezuelan authorities have arrested hundreds of political prisoners, prompting an International Criminal Court investigation into possible crimes against humanity, while Nicaraguan police and courts have incarcerated the opposition en masse.

Violence appears most likely in countries where the ideological divides are starkest, with the protagonists branding each other as threats to peaceful coexistence. Fuelled both by politicians seeking supporters among the disaffected public and by the grassroots demand for strong leadership, toxic rhetoric has become a feature of many Latin American democracies. Bolsonaro backers refuse to countenance what they regard as a criminal, immoral government taking power on the basis of a spurious election – a claim for which (like their U.S. counterparts in January 2021) they have no evidence. In Peru, meanwhile, the right-wing loser in 2021 elections refused to accept defeat for weeks; in turn, the eventual victor, leftist Pedro Castillo, triggered his own imprisonment and weeks of turbulence in December 2022 by moving to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

Yet the uproar in Brazil has characteristics particular to the far right. Brazilian hard-right circles, including members of Bolsonaro’s family, have clearly drawn inspiration from the latter days of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, in which he agitated to alter the 2020 election result. The incursion into Congress by activists unconcerned to conceal their identity or involvement in acts of ostentatious destruction brooks parallels with the events of early 2021 in Washington, the salient difference being that Brazil’s legislature was empty at the time of the attack. Judicial investigators may well explore whether the resemblance among right-wing movements in the U.S., Brazil and elsewhere owes to actual coordination beyond the marketplace of ideas.

The brazen law-breaking on 8 January does not ... mean that Brazil has succumbed to a far-right takeover.

The brazen law-breaking on 8 January does not, however, mean that Brazil has succumbed to a far-right takeover. Throughout the years of Bolsonaro’s government, and despite his incendiary rhetoric, misguided decisions and nostalgia for military rule, Brazil kept its institutional and constitutional order intact. Firm, clearly worded judicial rulings, a vibrant civil society and a broad popular coalition – reinforced by strong international backing for Brazilian democracy – enabled Lula not just to win power but to hold the threat of a coup at bay. Condemnation of the rampage by a united front of federal and state institutions on 9 January, alongside rallies in support of democracy, should now strengthen Lula’s and the judiciary’s hands in conducting fair, transparent investigations into the most fanatical elements of Bolsonaro’s base, as well as the former president himself, if evidence of his participation emerges. So long as the armed forces do not take a rash decision to intervene in politics, these same conditions should ensure that his government functions normally.

But with the year ahead promising little economic relief, and with the ideological rift in Brazilian society etched in state institutions, the new government will have to chart a course between prosecuting Bolsonaro’s zealots and negotiating with his political disciples and more moderate supporters, as well as both mollifying and controlling the armed forces. Like it or not, the new government cannot ignore the broad public support for the former president’s conservatism and distrust of political elites. The best, most realistic hope for stability in Brazil is not to expect his more pragmatic supporters to abandon their beliefs, but instead to reestablish the credibility of federal political leadership via transparent, clean and effective rule. In the meantime, Lula’s government must find a way to cajole the movement Bolsonaro built into leaving the streets and working instead within the system. Bolsonaro and his ultras may disapprove, but the more isolated they are, the less destructive power they will enjoy.

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